Welp, they don’t seem to care much for Donald Trump, but the New York Times likes me.
A weeks ago, I’d shut down email for the day, except — fun fact — I’m almost always trying to clear out my email. Over at Creative Loafing, our food editor and one of my favorite people, Meaghan, always has about three or four emails in her inbox. She’s that good at clearing them out. Right now, I have roughly seventy-seven million emails waiting for me, so I feel compelled to check them from time to time, even when I’m theoretically done for the day.
So, the de facto in-laws are down for the holidays, and as we’re all watching football I start looking for easy emails to handle. I see one from a John Dorman, who says he’s with the Times and would like to do a Q&A with me. Now, we have a daily paper here we also refer to as “the Times“, so I thought, oh, OK, that’s weird, because they rejected me for the Festival of Reading and haven’t shown any interest in Backroads whatsoever, but cool.
Then I get to the signature line and it’s not the local Times. No, it’s the New York Times. Or, as I said about two seconds after I realized which paper had contacted me, The New York Fucking Times, but only in my head, because, well, I try not to say fuck so much around Barry’s parents, because I’m a goddamn lady and all.
So, um, hey, read this super-cool interview with this awesome Florida chick who’s in the New York FUCKING Times. Or buy the print version of the paper Sunday. Or do both.
Is that treason? Am I going to jail now? Look, I’m not a fan of the guy. One of the main reasons? His treatment of Florida’s indigenous folk. Now, I know we had a period of time in our history when “killing Injuns” was trendy, but really, Jackson took this trend to new levels of historical douchbaggery. He didn’t care that Spain had rule over Florida, because he was damn sure going to come down here and kill himself some locals anyway, treaties and such be damned.
Last night I came home and Barry had cleaned the living room and kitchen. This made me happy. After I gazed lovingly at my clean floors, I noticed a box behind him on the counter.
“What’s that?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Who’s it from?”
“The University Press of Florida,” and then he smiled. Big smile, because the box could only be one thing, really: The author copies of my book.
The book has arrived. Finally. It’s real. It has my name on it and everything.
Then, this morning, that thing on Facebook where you see your memories on the same date in years past popped up with this: One day shy of five years to the day after Stetson Kennedy died, my travel narrative about retracing the tours he helped created in the 1930s arrives.
Five years. Five years to take the trips, write the book, edit the book, revise the book, edit the book, do all the things you have to do after you write and edit and revise and edit a book, and to get to here. That’s a long time, or at least, it feels that way.
I never met the man — he died too soon — and anyone who’s seen the book in any of its drafts knows I did my own thing — this book doesn’t quite resemble the guide he helped create — but I hope, wherever it is that Florida people like him go when they die, he doesn’t hate it and, more importantly, he knows how much his legacy has impacted my life.
You can buy the book here, and I truly hope you do. I re-read a lot of it last night and I’m certainly not impartial, but I do kind of love it.
Although Backroads of Paradise doesn’t hit bookstore shelves for another two months, I’ve started getting requests from bookstores and libraries around the state for me to come speak. The great marketing team at UPF (University Press of Florida) has also convinced the Miami Book Fair and the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (apparently the cool kids call that SIBA) that I should speak at their shows.
Miami and SIBA are big deals, and I’m thrilled. Also, I have a small — quite small — travel budget from the press, so I get to go to Miami and then Savannah essentially for free. The libraries and bookstores? Not so much, and so I get creative. Look, I’m not complaining at all about people wanting me to come to their corner of Florida and talk about why I love Florida (honestly, that part’s a dream come true); I’m concerned about budget because, well, since the press hasn’t finished printing Backroads of Paradise yet, I haven’t seen a royalty check.
Because I love to travel and talk about Florida and I don’t want to tell anyone no (I mean, this is how I sell books, right?) I’ll couch surf. Last night I heard someone describe this as a “couch surfing book tour” and they’d done it themselves. And now, it seems, I will do it myself.
Which means a lot of my old friends spread out across the state may get a phone call in the coming months. Forewarned is forearmed, y’all.
Also, if you have a bookstore/work at a library/ sit on a board of a historical society, please get in touch with me to have me come speak.
I promise I won’t ask to sleep on your couch.
Hey, buy my book now. It’s the gift that keeps giving, because you’ll get it October, so it’s like TWO Amazon purchases!
At long last, the book has landed. It has a title, Backroads of Paradise, and an ISBN number and everything. Just like the velveteen rabbit, It’s real.
Well, mostly — it really real on October 4, but you can pre-order it now from Amazon and they’ll ship it to you in October. Alternately, you can order it through the University Press of Florida, where you can also read an excerpt (in case you need further persuading, or in case you don’t feel you can wait any longer, a feeling a I know quite well) from my tour across the coastal edge of Florida’s panhandle (yay, oysters!).
I don’t want to go on too much (I’ve already done that here), and I don’t want to brag or anything, but according to Amazon, Backroads of Paradise, is already #2171 on the bestseller lists for South Atlantic United States travel books, so, you know, almost as popular as 50 Shades of Gray and infinitely better written. Also, it weighs 1.7 pounds. That’s a lot of Florida right there, y’all…
And yes, I’ll compulsively track those sales numbers on Amazon, because it’s not stalking if it’s not a person, right?
Oh, and because people have asked: Yes, UPF will release this as an ebook, and that option should show up soon on Amazon; and no, it doesn’t matter to me where you buy the book, Amazon or UPF, so long as you buy Backroads of Paradise. As in, right now. For everyone you know.
My book has a title and a release date. Well, a release month: October.
And the title? Oh, yeah: Backroads of Paradise.
So far, I’ve seen two of the blurbs for it — Craig Pittman and Gary Mormino (those of you who know him will not at all be shocked when that link doesn’t take you to an author website), both accomplished authors for whom I have great respect — and they both have wonderful things to say.
And that’s all I have, which is a lot of me jumping up and down and going “At last! It’s been five years since I started planning this road trip, and now, it’s a book. With pages. And a cover. And a press to manage all the crappy details I don’t want to deal with!”
So, yeah, that’s “all I have” but it’s still pretty big in Cathy-world.
As soon as it’s available for pre-order, which should be a few months yet, I’ll post the links here. And, well, pretty much everywhere else.
“Key West was to be made the American winter resort of the tropics.”
– From the 1941 Works Progress Administration’s Key West
WHAT: To the uninitiated, Key West is just around the corner from anywhere in Florida. In reality, driving from Pensacola to Key West will take only seven fewer minutes than driving from Pensacola to Chicago. Of course, Key West is the warmer of the two places, and perhaps decidedly more quirky. The island, a seven-and-a-half square mile collection of roughly 25,000 residents, has a reputation for odd. More than one new Gulfport resident likens the town to Key West.
Key West, if you believe the stories, is filled with people who moved south to drop out. It’s a collection of extremes. In 1982 the federal government mounted a roadblock on US 1 to stop illegal aliens from entering the country. Since the roadblock was north of Key West, this meant Conchs (Key West residents) had to prove their citizenship to leave the island. In protest, they seceded from the United States, then immediately surrendered and demanded reparations.
Key West, this story seems to prove, is nothing like the rest of the United States. It’s even the cheeky cousin of mainland Florida, no slouch itself when it comes to wacky headlines. Arts of all sorts abound; Hemingway had a home here; Winslow Homer painted here. Countless artists across an abundance of mediums live and work in Key West. However, Key Weird (as some call it) attracts the arts community not by chance or the appeal of a remote bohemian community; Key West attracts artists because during the Great Depression, the federal government plugged money into the arts in Key West. Arts, and the tourists their work attracted, would save the key from economic death.
WHY: In the 1830s, Key West was the wealthiest city in the United States, with professional wreckers (also called pirates) earning a good living. By 1934, situations changed and Key West was bankrupt. This wasn’t a “paper” bankruptcy: the city had no money to pay its employees. When the city asked the federal government for help during the Great Depression, 80% of its residents already received federal aid. Its pleas were specific: Please send money so we can tell the world how great we are. The plan was to make the city a tourist destination on par with Bermuda and Nassau.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) imported artists to create works of art that would promote Key West as a tourist destination. Murals, advertising, guidebook illustrations and postcards resulted from this glut of artists. Citizens volunteered over two million man-hours to clean streets, develop beaches, create sanitation systems, and renovate and redecorate houses. Across the nation, city planners lauded this bold community planning experiment. Talent the government could not import, it taught. Residents on the government dole took classes in how to make art, which consisted of everything from drawings to ashtrays.
WHO: Key West is the Monroe County seat. Monroe includes parts of Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Preserve, the Dry Tortugas and the entire chain of limestone islands curving around the tip of mainland Florida.
WHERE: MM0, at the end of US 1.
BEST part: The cemetery with the sense of humor. Stroll through the headstones (bring plenty of water) and find epitaphs like “Just resting my eyes,” and “I told you I was sick.”
WORST part: In the case of what FERA and 1930s Key West officials hoped to accomplish, Duval Street remains the prime example of getting what you wish for: tourists.
FUN fact: During prohibition, some homes used the negative space in the gingerbread trim to advertise guns or booze for sale. Look for homes with guns or liquor bottles hidden in second-story trim.
MAGIC Question: Key West isn’t cheap. Even the cheapest hotels cost a couple of hundred dollars a night. Parking costs about $14 a day. Just off-island, try the Sugarloaf KOA or the Sugarloaf Lodge.
Today I spoke to a packed house at Heritage Village for the Speaking of History series. I talked mostly about US 98 and how much fun it is to eat your way through Florida’s panhandle. If you missed the talk, trust me on this: it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on (although clothing is by no means necessary). I mean, if you like seafood. If you don’t care for seafood, well, you’re kind of up a creek there, but then, you do have some of the best beaches in the world to occupy you while everyone else starts shoveling in the oysters like the world’s about to end.
I won’t rehash the entire tour, but I have to say I was thrilled the St. Petersburg Tribune sent out a reporter to cover my talk. You can read the article here. Note to my Gulfport peeps: I really did tell the audience “Gulfport is it for me” so, yeah, you’re stuck with me.
After I spoke, someone asked me if I had a web site and I directed them here. However, since I went under contract with the University Press of Florida for a book about my travels, I haven’t posted here – largely because the bulk of what I have to say, I’m saying in print, and they asked that I not, in essence, compete with myself. Since I blog for free and, ostensibly, I will one day make money from writing the book, it seemed like a fair enough request.
However, if you’re here because I directed you here at my talk, don’t go away. You can do two things: one, follow me on Twitter @CathySalustri, because every time I post to my other blog (the non-exclusive-to-Florida blog), it automatically pushes a Tweet. Don’t ask me how; I call it Inter-magic; two, you can keep this site bookmarked, because while I cannot keep including material that may appear in the as-of-yet-untitled book, I will be including new material, not the least of which is my slow-but-steady Detours & Diversions travel column that appears in print and online in everyone’s favorite weekly paper, the GabberNewspaper.
If you missed it, you can watch my presentation online, thanks to the magic of the Internet and the awesome peeps at Pinellas 18.. And I’ll get my latest travels, to one of the state’s only (legal) whiskey distilleries, online this week. So, you know, come back. I’m nowhere near as witty as the Bloggess, and certainly not as popular, but I like to think that “whiskey distillery” and “clothing is by no means necessary” will at least pique the interest of the search engines. But, again, I don’t know. It’s all Inter-Magic.
This is the seventh (and final) leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
In stark contrast to the spacious green country hills surrounding Monticello, the most crowded place in the state waits at the end of the tour. Pinellas County, the most densely populated but second smallest of Florida’s 67 counties (Union County has 40 square miles less than Pinellas County’s 280), greets you at with sponge docks and Greek food. After divers picked over the Key West sponge fields, they headed north to Tarpon Springs. Eventually, synthetic sponges replaced the mass need for natural sponges, but today locals still refer to Tarpon’s downtown as “the sponge docks.” The city boasts Greek food, sponge and Greek-oriented gift shops (think lots of olive oil-based products), and an annual Epiphany celebration. The Greek community celebrates the Epiphany, or Cross Day, with a blessing of the fleet. As part of the Epiphany, a Christian holiday celebrating the baptism of their Christ in the Jordan River, a processional (complete with doves) to the water ends with a priest from the local Greek Orthodox church throwing a cross in the water. Young men dive for the cross; the one who retrieves it receives a blessing from the priest and, legend holds, divine beneficence for the coming year.
US 19 runs the eastern length of the county, but Alternate 19 and the Pinellas Trail parallel and twist over each other on the western edge. The Pinellas Trail, a former railway line converted to paved trail, runs the length of the county with spurs into local communities. The trail has rest stops, water fountains, and a host of bike shops and restaurants along its 33-mile trek through the county. Like the trail, US 19 travels the length of the county, and it is here that the road is at its most crowded. Between Wall Springs Park – a historic spring once marketed as a health spa – and St. Petersburg, the route devolves into a glut of supermarkets, gas stations, and car dealerships. In St. Petersburg, a detour off the road over to Fourth Street takes you to Sunken Gardens, where you can descend into the pit of a sinkhole covered in flowers and greenery. At one time, the flowered sinkhole boasted a plastic Jesus – I’m not sure why, and no one at Sunken Gardens can tell me why when I ask, but, hey, it’s Florida, so I roll with it – but it’s long gone.
At the county’s south end, Fort DeSoto takes over. The fort and park are on five islands interconnected by a chain of bridges and lagoons; the 1100-plus acres of the park are prime beachfront real estate, fronting Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The park offers a 13-mile bike trail, fishing piers, camping, beaches, paddling, a boat ramp, hiking paths, and a beachfront fog park. The merits of the park alone could merit a book in and of itself. This park, expanses of sand and pines and pockets of nature, offers an oasis from the quick marts, Dollar General stores, and homogenized shopping experiences dotting the tour.
Off the tip of Pinellas County, two islands offer shelling, snorkeling and less crowded beach going. Shell Key, a nature preserve easily kayaked over tidal flats, has no facilities but plenty of birds. Oystercatcher, skimmers, and other beach birds nest here. Shell collectors often find sand dollars here as large as dessert plates, and the waters between the southern Pinellas mainland and the Key are rife with dolphin and manatee.
Wade out a few feet into the Gulf, skim your hands just under the sand, and odds are you’ll find sand dollars. Get there early in the morning at low tide, and you’ll find a haul of shells. The island – too long to circumnavigate on foot – alternates between grassy beachfront, white sand, and scratchy sea oats. In the center at its widest part (not at all that wide) you will find the odd tree or two.
If you intend to kayak to Shell Key, beware Pass-a-Grille channel: between the shallow waters off Shell Key and Pass-a-Grille, the channel is swift and deep and well-traveled by boats far larger than kayaks or paddleboards. A more serene (and admittedly longer) paddle is from the southern end of Tierra Verde. Do not attempt this paddle at a low tide; you will find yourself walking over mud flats. Stop by the oyster-ringed spoil islands on the way out to Shell Key, though, and odds are you will stumble upon a starfish nursery or two.
Further offshore and not suggested for kayakers is Egmont Key, an island in the main shipping channel for Tampa Bay. Most of the island is open to the public, although harbor pilots have housing on a private piece of the island. Egmont Key attracts snorkelers who want to look for sea life in the sea grass or explore the sunken ruins of the crumbling Fort. Charter boats offer trips to both these islands.
In Pinellas County Gulf Boulevard offers a beachy alternative to US 19. It starts at the west end of the county, in Clearwater, and runs south along the Gulf to Pass-a-Grille. The bulk of this stretch is a two-lane road. Traffic exits a roundabout onto Gulf Boulevard south, passing first through the sandy carnival of Clearwater Beach. The beach has a marina offering every conceivable boat trip, from a yellow oversized speedboat that tempts Atlantic bottlenose dolphin to surf their gargantuan wake, to sailboats that let the wind pull them through Clearwater Harbor and into the Gulf. Pier 60, the pier at the western terminus of state road 60, has a nightly sunset celebration complete with buskers and artists.
Over the Sand Key Bridge, condominium canyons line either side of the road, the only exception the county’s Sand Key Park. Sand Key Park is a beachfront park across Clearwater Pass from the hotels on Clearwater Beach. Beach sunflowers, sea oats, and low lying beach scrub dot the park, a stark contrast to the next town south, Belleair Beach. This quiet community has mostly traditional Florida ranch homes and a handful of two-story hotels on the beach. Belleair Shores is yet another type of city, with walled-off beach mansions, gated beach accesses, and a reputation as the spoiled rich child of the county. Indian Rocks Beach, Redington Shores, North Redington Beach and Redington Beach are the next four towns along Gulf Boulevard. They are chiefly residential, with many vacation homes available by the week or month, but fewer nightly motels. The beaches here are accessible largely by walkover access with limited parking, but they are not as populated as Clearwater beach to the north and every beach to the south.
Madeira Beach is a wider city, owing largely to the dredged residential fingers on the east side. At the south point, a collection of tourist-centric shops offer everything from tacky t-shirts to exotic spices at John’s Pass Village. John’s Pass is the waterway dividing Madeira Beach from Treasure Island, another larger beach community with a mix of condominiums, hotels, and homes. The city’s main shopping thoroughfare, 107th Avenue, runs east over the Treasure Island Causeway, becomes Central Avenue, and runs through St. Petersburg’s downtown, ending at Tampa Bay.
The county’s final beach town, St. Pete Beach, is in no way associated with St. Petersburg; calling it “St. Petersburg’s Beach” tends to produce an unfavorable response from the town’s 9,000 residents, many of whom are seasonal. The city consumes the entirety of Long Key, not to be confused with Long Key in the Florida Keys (See Tour 1). St. Pete Beach bookends Clearwater Beach (which truly belongs to the City of Clearwater, a sandy extension of the mainland city) in size, amenities, and beach. It boasts a a plethora of hotels, motels, and resorts. Visitors can spend anywhere from $100 a night at a retro-styled hotel to $600 per night at the 1920s-era Don CeSar.
Pass-a-Grille, a separate city in 1939, is now part of St. Pete Beach. You will not find a single large resort here; most buildings have only two or three stories. Pass-a-Grille still retains a sense of individuality from St. Pete Beach, with special zoning rules and guidelines, houses with more foliage than grass, and the distinction of the southernmost point on the southernmost beach in the southernmost city in Pinellas County. From here you have nowhere to go – as the last motel on the point advertises, visitors have arrived at Island’s End.
This is the sixth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
I only knew about the stilt houses because I wanted to impress a man. This particular man flew small planes, and although the very idea of taking to the skies in even a 747, much less a tiny single engine plane, made my stomach seize up like a engine with no oil, I agreed to take to the skies. To my delight, the thrill of flying stayed with me long after the man fell away.
Among the best things I saw from the right, then the left, seat of a small plane, the day I discovered the stilt homes, prodding the pilot to swoop lower so I could get a better look, will stay with me until I die. I knew, of course, of Stiltsville in Biscayne Bay, but I didn’t realize that stilt homes stood so close to my own beach home just south of Green Key.
You can’t see the stilt homes off the coast of Green Key from the road. If you’re not a boater, a general aviation pilot, or a local with a kayak or paddleboard, odds are you’ll never know they exist.
Just past Green Key’s shimmering sands, a cluster of stilt houses rises from Pasco County’s clear waters. These fish camps, perched high above the Gulf of Mexico on wooden legs, stand in silent tribute to Florida’s yesteryear. The water surrounding these camps is calm and shallow. Stand-up paddleboards dot the placid waters surrounding Green Key. Skinny strips of white, blue and pink boards let paddlers dance across key lime water, away from buff-colored shores and out toward a slice of Florida history.
As you slip into the Gulf, the world beneath your feet comes alive. Cownose rays – tiny, timid stingrays, no bigger than a dinner plate – flutter over sea grass. Mullet twist and toss themselves into the air. As your paddle pushes you through saltwater, redfish zig, then zag, just beneath the surface of this oversized aquarium.
Celebrities from Johnny Cash to Billy Graham have sought respite in these weathered bits of old Florida. The shallow, sapphire-studded waters reflect the sun-bleached wood on these houses, private residences used as fish camps in the Gulf. The stilt houses remain as long as the weather permits: State law says those destroyed in a storm cannot be rebuilt. The fish camps stand in mere feet of water, so paddleboards are one of the few ways to get close.
Tucked amidst the watery stilt city, Durney Key attracts paddleboarders, kitesurfers, kayakers and boaters. Driftwood and bits of sea glass adorn its shore and fiddler crabs scurry over packed brown sand. A cluster of trees in the key’s center offers shelter. Day-trippers and campers alike search for shells and watch the sun set over the fish camps.
On the paddle back toward Green Key, fish scurry from your path as the nightly seabreeze pushes you home. From the sand, you can see the stilt houses in the distance, waiting for your return.
The most logical launch for the four-mile round trip paddle is on Green Key at Robert K. Rees Memorial Park. Parts of this entry appeared initially as work for Visit Florida.